The route of the Gibb River Road crosses the traditional lands of many Kimberley peoples, including the Njikena, Bunuba, Ongkomi, Ngarinyin, Gedija, Worrorra and Wunumbal language groups. A rich indigenous culture has been practiced throughout the area for many thousands of years, and the Gwion (Bradshaw) and Wandjina rock art traditions are features of the rock paintings in the region surrounding the Gibb River Road and Mitchell Plateau.
Once pastoralists moved across the Kimberley and established cattle stations, Aboriginal people were forcibly displaced from their traditional lands, working as stockmen and domestics on stations, and living and working in remote missions.
While the Gibb River Road as we know it today was constructed in the 1960’s, pastoralists had previously constructed two unsealed tracks linking Derby with Mt House station in the west, and Wyndham with Karunjie Station, Gibb River Station and Kalumburu in the east. Both tracks (known as the Mt House Road and Karunjie Track) were hand hewn roadways wide enough for bullock wagons, and for drovers with their cattle herds.
These roads provided essential connections between the ports at Derby and Wyndham and outlying stations, but the going was rough – it could take over a week to travel with a supply wagon from Mt House to Derby.
The “Beef Roads Programme” was set up by the government in 1949 to provided funding for the construction of infrastructure to support the beef industry. The Gibb River Road was constructed as part of this programme, and under the supervision of Main Roads WA teams of surveyors, engineers and labourers set out on an arduous 3 year road-building project.
The Gibb River Road only partially follows the routes of the Mt House Road and Karunjie Track – with the benefit of explosives and heavy machinery, the road team were able to cut a new direct route through the Napier and King Leopold Ranges, and construct creek crossings. The first beef truck travelled the western section of the road in 1963, while works continued at the eastern end until 1967, completing the route of the Gibb River Road that we travel today.
In the 1980’s and 1990’s Aboriginal communities were established along the Gibb River Road, including Imintji, Kupingarri (Mt Barnett Station), Ngallagunda (Gibb River Station), Dodonun (east of Mt Elizabeth Station), Prap Prap (west of Doongan Station) and Kandiwal Community at the Mitchell Plateau.
Some of these communities are now involved in the tourism industry along the Gibb River Road and its surrounds, including operating tours, campsites, shops and roadhouses, and galleries featuring local artists.